As translators, we all know that it isn’t exactly the easiest of tasks to transform words, along with their sentiment, feel and timbre, into a completely different language. But it complicates matters further when the actual tools we use (glyphs and punctuation marks) are different too. Luckily I work in languages where 95% of the alphabet is the same, and the punctuation is more or less similar. But there is one little mark that for some reason is so obstinate that it has a different look, use and name in almost every language.
Quotation marks, double inverted commas, speech marks, guillemets, goose feet, citation marks, duck feet, smart quotes, curly quotes, dumb quotes, whatever you want to call them, we really have to master them in the languages we work in – there’s no goose stepping around it. Oh and then there are the scare quotes and – my favourites – air quotes.
Inverted commas are the kind of thing you just USE, you don’t really spend much time thinking about them, a bit like tin openers or toilet brushes. It’s only when you get up close to one that suddenly the details seem to matter.
Did you know that unicode offers twenty-nine ways to represent inverted commas: multilingual variants like the guillemet as well as minor visual differences including primes (to indicate feet and inches as well as measures of time) straight quotes (also known as dumb quotes) and curly quotes (which your computer does automatically if you have “smart quotes” enabled to save you the hassle).
I just spent a day checking the final proofs for a lengthy brochure for a global real estate company. The translation had been carried out by someone else – excellently, I should say – and all I had to do was look for typos and….wait, what’s that, those curly things, aren’t they kind of— the – wrong – way – round? “”„“”
Somehow the graphic designer had tried-and-tested his way through just about every variety of speech mark going, and three hours in I was questioning my sanity and had to print out this image to save myself from going mad:
I was sorely tempted to use dumb quotes as an easy solution (come on, gimme a break, I was sitting next to a graphic designer who looked not a day over 12, in a sweltering office with no air conditioning). But I pulled myself together. Just for the record, the only place you should be using dumb quotes is when you’re coding. Which is probably never.)
So, in the process of explaining to the young whippersnapper why English inverted commas were used completely differently, I did a bit of research that I want to share with you word nerds and punctuation punks out there:
- Inverted commas are different in pretty much every language:
« » French/Spanish
― A Greek
„A” Polish (known as split-level quotation marks)
„A“ German/Icelandic (ditto above)
- The French brackets are called guillemets (I always thought they were called guillemots, like the bird, because they look rather like flying birds…but apparently not. Colloquially they are called duck feet, so I was not too far off the mark.)
- The German curlies are also called “Gänsefüsschen” or “little goosefeet”.
And a pair of guillemets en français.
- The earliest record of inverted commas can be found in “De Vitis Sophistarum” by Flavius Philostratus, which was printed in Strasbourg, Alsace (and, in 1516, was still part of Germany, so I am going to claim it for my gang.) There you see a pair of commas to the left of each line.
The book has been digitised by the MDZ (Münchener Digitale Bibliothek) and thanks to creative commons is available under this link (well worth a look for the interesting layout too).
- Scholars generally agree that the method of marking out quoted text with quotation marks first gained traction with the invention of the printing press.
- In Ancient Greece a “diple” (double) sign was used to attract attention to pretty much anything noteworthy in a text, and this mark was then developed in a wide variety of shapes, ranging from squiggles to arrow heads to bird’s wing Vs.
- Apparently block quotation (indenting the quote) comes from the convention of putting quote marks to the left of every line in the Baroque and Renaissance periods. The marks were then omitted at some point, but the space remained.
- For some reason Germans like to enclose all kinds of things in inverted commas (store names, foreign words, words with particular emphasis). Which is perhaps a throwback to the Ancient Greek habit of marking out noteworthy words and passages, also reflected in the modern-day “highlight” function on a Kindle.
It is vital as DE>EN translators to reminded ourselves that, sure, we could just turn them round the right way. But we could also – just. leave. them. out.
MORE FUN STUFF
There is even a “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks! Well worth a visit:
Commonplace Markers and Quotation Marks Laura Estill
Published March 7, 2014, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License